Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 12/Review: Acquisition of Oregon and the long suppressed evidence about Marcus Whitman

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Oregon Historical Quarterly, Volume 12  (1911) 
Review: Acquisition of Oregon and the long suppressed evidence about Marcus Whitman by Leslie M. Scott



By William I. Marshall, of Chicago

(Seattle: Lowman and Hanford Company, 1911. Volume I, pp. 450; Volume II, pp. 366)

Though many writers have essayed history of the acquisition period of Oregon, none has quite filled the need. More or less common is lack of scrutiny of "original sources" and of keen discernment of materials. Frequently, writers have based chronicles and conclusions on "facts" remembered long afterwards, not recorded at the event often tinted with imagination or biased opinion of a later time.

Many "original sources" must yet be studied before a satisfactory history can be written of the large movements in discovery, exploration, settlements and acquisition of Oregon. Records of Hudson's Bay Company are yet to be opened and of the British Government; those of the United States Government are. to be examined for fuller data and writings of its statesmen and diplomats; also of missionary organizations that contributed to early settlement. Much knowledge is to be gleaned from letters, diaries and journals of contemporary periods.

A book just published, "Acquisition of Oregon," written by the late William I. Marshall of Chicago (2 Vols., Lowman & Hanford Co., Seattle), delves farthest into first-hand materials of any history yet published of the pioneer period. The labor expended on this book by Professor Marshall was immense. His search into the issues of diplomacy over Oregon, through government archives and through diaries and letters of American diplomatists for the period 1814-46; his inquiry into records of the executive department and of Congress for that period; his study of letters and diaries of missionaries and pioneer immigrants between 1832 and 1846 all this makes the completest and most illuminating story of pioneer Oregon yet compiled.

There is opportunity for best literary skill in the tale of Oregon. World-wide currents affected discovery, exploration, settlement and title of this region. The story turns on the most important episodes of western progress. There is abundant room, too, for exercise of "philosophy of history."

The Marshall history possesses very high excellence. Its vigor betokens the energy and vigilance wherewith Marshall busied himself at the task during twenty-eight years. Its central purpose is to explode the Whitman myth. It succeeds admirably and fully. No reader of Marshall, no unbiased reader, hereafter can believe that myth. Few close investigators ever believed it. Every writer of Oregon history must go henceforth to Marshall, as he must go to Greenhow, else must undertake himself the vast labor of examining first-hand materials. The facts that Marshall cites are full and true. He distorts nothing.

Yet the Marshall work has faults. In demolishing the Whitman myth the author detracts unduly from the heroic character of the Wailatpu missionary, and from his very valuable participation in pioneer immigration and settlement. Marshall's continuous effort to reduce the importance of Whitman in the "saving" of Oregon leaves too little in the book for admiration of Whitman. Then, too, Marshall injects repeated doses of Whitman myth acrimony; he quarrels with authors of the myth after the manner of the half-century dispute over the question; he shows not enough of the even tenor of the true historian.

Also, Marshall asserts, as corollary of his argument, that Oregon would have been saved had the pioneer Whitman never been born, that Oregon would have been won to the United States from Great Britain without the advent of any of the pioneer parties. This broad assertion—that of occupation of Oregon by American pioneers played no part whatever in establishing the United States title—cannot be reconciled with the political spirit of the nation between 1840 and 1846, which drove thousands of American citizens to this region and demanded its possession even to the line of "fifty-four-forty-or-fight."

However, this criticism is of Marshall's conclusions, not of his facts. There they are for the reader to judge. Marshall asks no person to accept his conclusions.

But for Marshall's untimely death in 1906, undoubtedly he would have improved this crowning work of his life; perhaps revised some of his conclusions; probably given his book finer literary arrangement; certainly fixed himself more firmly as a foremost authority on Oregon history, as he is the very first authority on the Whitman legend. It will not be necessary for anybody else to disprove that legend.

Only 200 copies of the book have been printed. This has been accomplished through contribution of money by some twelve residents of Oregon and Washington, who saw the need of bringing to fruition the life work of Professor Marshall. This effort, headed by C. B. Bagley of Seattle, has been entirely successful.

Whitman Needs No False Glory.

Dr. Marcus Whitman needs no false glory; nor does the missionary cause which did great things for Oregon; neither does Whitman College—an ever growing monument to this patriot hero. Dr. Whitman will be an everlasting figure in Oregon annals; always will be honored by the gratitude of our people. But he was but one character among many, though indeed a foremost one, in occupation of Oregon. He did his duty as missionary, pioneer, citizen, and died a martyr's death at the hand of the savage. He did not "save Oregon," that is, he alone did not.

In company with other Americans, Whitman carried the claims of his country to this region, and with them won Oregon from the British. Occupation of Oregon and consequent possession by the United States belongs to no one man, but to many. Jason Lee and his associates, who settled in the Willamette Valley in the critical time are equal in honor to Whitman. Before these pioneers, and contemporaneous with them, our diplomatists and statesmen did their part in saving Oregon: Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Richard Rush, Daniel Webster. And before them were others deserving of honor, American explorers—Captain Gray, Lewis and Clark, the Astors, Wyeth. And the thousands of Whitman's contemporary pioneers, who settled in Oregon up to 1846 played a vital part in the acquisition of Oregon.

The journey of Whitman from his mission, near Walla Walla, to Boston, much of it in the dead of winter, 1842-43, is a fact of history. But much fiction has fastened to the story. Details of the fiction came into existence many years after Whitman's death in 1847. Imagination supplied adornments to the tale one after another. Marshall disproves them all.

The legend tells of two Flathead Indians, who had made their way to St. Louis about 1831, and had been refused the "Book of Heaven" by Governor William Clark, after having been offered unsatisfying forms of Catholic worship. It narrates that Whitman, responding to this Indian call, and spending six years (1836-42) as missionary near these Indians in what is now Eastern Washington, discovered the British and the Hudson's Bay Company, with Catholic aid, taking possession of Oregon. It represents V'/hitman finally determining (1842) to make for Washington, D. C., press upon President Tyler and Secretary of State Webster, who were then treating with Britain concerning the Canadian boundary, the claims of the United States and the value of Oregon, and lead back a large immigration to possess Oregon. The legend pictures Whitman spurred to this feat by a party of British traders holding feast at Walla Walla in the autumn of 1842 and exulting that Britain had won the country. It takes Whitman before President Tyler and Secretary Webster, whom he found ready to trade Oregon for a cod fishery on" Newfoundland. It puts into the mouth of Webster that Oregon was a "worthless area."

It portrays Whitman exacting a promise from the President and his Secretary to delay negotiations with Great Britain until he should lead to Oregon the large pioneer train of 1843. It pictures Whitman making speeches and publishing pamphlets on Oregon, endeavoring in every way to electrify the country and to induce immigrants to Oregon in 1843. It details him as a Moses leading the party of pioneers to Oregon that year, and as being its indispensable overseer. It tells of the officers of the British Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Hall barring the way to the pioneer train, and trying to stop its wagons, and of Whitman's resolution in taking the party by the British, wagons and all, to the Columbia River. It represents the success of the wagon immigration and the opening of the mission; none in the archives of the missionary board in Boswagon route as achievements of Whitman. It avers that this wagon road thus opened was the means of saving Oregon by American pioneers.

Wonder grows, in analyzing this romance, that in these days of enlightenment, of writing and printing, this story could grow to such absurd proportions and to so many fiction details; that it could gain such wide credence.

Corroboration Is Lacking.

No corroboration of any of these foregoing details of the myth can be found in contemporaneous writings, none in letters of Whitman or of Mrs. Whitman or of any member of his ton that sent Whitman to Oregon in 1836; none in the archives of the Government or in the letters of Tyler or Webster; none in religious publications of newspapers of the time; none in letters and diaries of leaders of the 1843 immigration, among them P. H. Burnett, Jesse and Lindsay Applegate, J. M. Shively, J. W. Nesmith, Almoran Hill—well known Oregon pioneers, all of whom have denied the Whitman myth.

All this disproof is fully detailed by Professor Marshall in manner completely convincing. And every person to whom Professor Marshall submitted his manuscript was convinced by what he says, except Dr. W. A. Mowry, one of the Whitman myth authors.

Several score persons read Marshall's manuscript, including historians of national and international reputation, professors of history in universities and colleges, teachers of history in normal schools, high schools and academies, principals of schools, judges, clergymen, lawyers, editors and public officers of various kinds—most of whom had been believers in the Whitman-saved-Oregon story and had indorsed it in lectures or sermons or in newspapers and magazine articles, or in their school and other histories, and therefore very naturally would have preferred not to have it proved false and who subjected all criticism of such evidence adverse to it to the most careful, and some of them to the most hostile scrutiny.

Among these critics Professor Marshall names: George Bancroft, John Fiske, Horace E. Scudder (who was editor of Barrow's "Oregon"), Professors John B. McMaster, of the University of Pennsylvania, Francis N. Thorpe, Harry Pratt Judson, of the University of Chicago; Andrew McLaughlin, formerly of the University of Michigan; Edward Channing, of Harvard University; Allen C. Thomas, of Haverford College; William P. Cordy, superintendent of schools, Springfield, Mass., and "many others."

Just What Whitman Did.

Then what truth lies behind the legend and why did Whitman make his famous midwinter "ride?"

Quarrels and dissensions and failure to make progress on the part of Whitman and his associates had caused the American board of foreign missions (Congregational, Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed) to order discontinuance of three of the four mission stations, including Whitman's, and return home of two of the missionaries. Whitman and his associates deemed this order fatal to their mission work, and they decided it expedient for Whitman to return to Boston to secure annulment of the order and a reinforcement of clergymen and laymen for whom they had been importuning the board. Whitman was successful in securing annulment of the order at Boston, where he arrived on March 30, 1843, having left Wailatpu October 3, 1842.

This midwinter journey was a feat of rare courage and hardihood. But it had no political influence in affairs of Oregon. It had no political purpose. There is no evidence that Whitman interviewed President Tyler or Secretary Webster. Congress adjourned March 4, 1843, when Whitman was at or near St. Louis, eastbound, just emerging from the frontier, and he did not reach Washington for more than a month afterwards. There was no disposition to sacrifice Oregon either on the part of the President or of Congress then adjourned.

Congress at its session recently ended had received the report of Lieutenant Wilkes, more fully describing Oregon than Whitman could do, and was fully alive to the Oregon situation. Secretary Webster, through Senator Choate, had announced January 18, 1843, in the Senate that the Secretary of State never had made or entertained a proposition to admit of any boundary line south of the forty-ninth parallel (the present boundary fixed in 1846) in negotiations with Ashburton, British plenipotentiary, in 1842, with whom it was alleged Webster was negotiating to trade Oregon north of the Columbia River for a cod fishery.

Nor did Whitman make any speeches nor publish pamphlets to arouse the spirit of immigration to Oregon. That spirit was already fully aroused, and the 1843 party assembled near Independence, Mo., May 20, 1843, with little or no knowledge of Whitman's presence in the East, nor did Whitman join them until several days later. On the journey his counsel and services as physician were valuable, yet not indispensable, and his utility as guide was small.

At Fort Hall the Hudson's Bay Company men made no effort to stay the wagons nor, if its men had tried, would they have succeeded, since the party was fully equipped to go through. Besides, three wagons had gone through in 1840, those of J. L. Meek, Robert Newell, Caleb Wilkins and Frederic Ermatinger, British chief trader at Fort Hall. This party was outfitted at the British post and one of its wagons was owned by Ermatinger.

This, remarks Marshall, "reduces to senseless drivel all the scores of pages in Barrows, Nixon, Craighead, Mowry, and the other advocates of the 'Whitman-Saved-Oregon' story, which accuses the Hudson's Bay Company of opposing the passage of wagons beyond Fort Hall."

After leaving Fort Boise, Whitman, together with a number of the younger men put off ahead and were of no service whatever to the wagon party in crossing the Blue Mountains.

All this and much more is substantiated, by testimony that is conclusive. Scores of American explorers and pioneers are quoted to show that Hudson's Bay Company did not oppose their going to Oregon, nor their hauling wagons thither. The evidence of Whitman's own writings and those of his wife and his associates shows plainly that his "ride" had no political purpose bearing on Oregon. This and similar evidence from original sources, never before published, is contained throughout the book.

Marshall shows the first animus of the legend to have been a desire to obtain from the Government $30,000 or $40,000 indemnity for Indian destruction of the mission, through representations that the missionary work, especially Whitman's, had won Oregon from the British and that the Government had failed to protect Whitman's station. When these representations were made in the '60s, there was keen hostility towards Britain in the United States on account of Civil War matters.

Much new information is presented by Marshall of diplomacy on Oregon between the restoration of Astoria after the war of 1812 and the final boundary treaty of 1846. This information shows that the United States from the very first held out for the forty-ninth parallel, never wavered from that line, never would accept south of that parallel, and finally secured it through President Polk and Secretary of State Buchanan.

This line was proposed in 1818 by President Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, when the treaty of joint occupation was negotiated, as an offset to the British offer of the Columbia River as a boundary. Monroe, as Secretary of State under Madison, and Adams, as one of the peace commissioners, had secured restoration of Astoria in the treaty of 1814 with Britain.

In 1823-24 Secretary Adams renewed the proposal of the forty-ninth parallel to the British Government but the latter again declined. In the negotiations Secretary Adams announced the Monroe doctrine through Henry Middleton, then American Minister to Russia, and Richard Rush, then Minister to Great Britain.

Monroe Doctrine First Applied.

It is interesting to note that the Monroe doctrine—now an axiom of American diplomacy—was first announced in negotiations with Britain and Russia concerning Oregon. It was intended as a warning to Russia colonization schemes in America and was supported by Britain. Also it was a warning, backed by Britain, to the holy alliance—France, Prussia, Austria, Russia—which planned to restore to Spain its lost American colonies.

The British then declined, however, the forty-ninth parallel, but in 1824 offered the forty-ninth parallel to the Columbia and thence that river to the Pacific. This Mr. Rush declined and again proposed the forty-ninth parallel to the ocean. Thus the British virtually conceded south of the Columbia. In 1826, Adams, then President, instructed Albert Gallatin, plenipotentiary negotiating with Britain the renewal of the 1818 joint treaty, that the forty-ninth parallel was our "ultimatum." From this "ultimatum" of Adams the American Government never receded. Webster's refusal to accept the Columbia River as boundary in 1842 in negotiations with Ashburton caused delay in the settlement until 1846.

These negotiations, not before fully examined as to their bearing on the Oregon boundary, convinced Professor Marshall that the Oregon question between the United States and Great Britain was one of diplomacy and not one of settlement and occupation. It is not probable, however, that Professor Marshall will be sustained in this view. Large influx of American settlers into Oregon, prior to 1846, undoubtedly alarmed Great Britain and finally induced its Government to accede to the American "ultimatum" of John Quincy Adams of 1826. But Marshall clearly shows that Whitman could have had no influence on the diplomacy of the question.

Important also is Professor Marshall's proof that the wagon road to Oregon was not Whitman's opening. Three wagons reached the Columbia River from Fort Hall in 1840—three years before the large wagon party which he is alleged to have guided through in 1843.

Besides, the route to the Columbia was really laid out by fur traders. Marshall finds that certainly 1000 Americans had crossed the Rocky Mountains before Whitman in 1836, probably 2000. On Whitman's first journey across in 1836 he was guided by American traders to Green River, and by Hudson's Bay men, thence to Fort Hall, and the. Columbia River. All the passes through the mountains to the Columbia, and the river routes, had been explored before Whitman's advent, and he followed the beaten path of the fur traders. The wagons of traders, explorers and settlers followed these trails of the fur traders. It was well known that wagons could go through to the Columbia before Whitman's journeys of 1836 and 1843, and that the only requisites were sufficient equipment and men for the enterprise. The wagons that did go through to the Columbia in 1840 and 1843 owed nothing to Whitman for the feat.

This review and criticism of the Marshall work, though somewhat extended, touches only briefly the main features of the book. The investigation is one long needed. The Whitman myth has distorted the truth during half a century, and it is time now to accord Dr. Whitman his due as patriot and hero of Oregon, but not as savior of this region.

Leslie M. Scott.